Revolution in Durham dining

Chapel Hill, North Carolina

The crazy success of WD-50 in New York — that wild and renowned molecular gastronomy dining destination led by mad scientist and chef Wylie Dufresne — has led to an onslaught of imitators, of which even North Carolina has not been spared. Foams and funky flavors are all the rage and a hot restaurant in Durham, simply called Revolution, has received acclaimed reviews for its ingredient-sourcing and innovative cooking techniques since opening last year.

This we had to check out.

Revolution is on Durham’s desolate, and somewhat depressing, main drag. Step inside the doors and you’re transported into a clean and modern space. There’s a bustling bar area and lots of dark gray and white. Flat screen televisions sit on the walls, broadcasting not a Duke basketball game (thank goodness) but instead the real source of the evening’s actions: the kitchen.

The menu came with a giant paperclip and after investigating our options, we agreed that our best bet to the meal was a tapas-like approach: three from the raw/chilled section and the same number of small plates. After hearing which dishes we were interested in, our waitress suggested the best order in which they should be served. We nodded and told her to bring it on.

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First up was Ahi tuna with wasabi caviar, cucumber and greens. Topped with crispy fried onions and an over-easy egg, this was a spicy and flavorful plate. Charlotte thought the wasabi was overbearing; for me, it was just right though.

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We followed this with cured parma ham with baby arugula, almonds and preserved orange. There were some sliced figs, too, whose sweetness balanced the saltiness of the aged meat. Stuffed in slices of a warm baguette, this was a winner.

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Next was Revolution’s signature dish, haystack shrimp with lemon-basil aioli. It was hard to determine what the haystack itself was made out of — crunchy, thin shavings that covered the shrimp — although the sweet sauce tasted a little funky with the basil.

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Our eyes bulged as two gigantic diver scallops with fava beans, pork belly and mint emulsion were placed in front of us. This was by far the best dish of the night. Buttery scallops, fatty belly and some mint. A bizarre but creative and delicious concoction.

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We were starting to get full as our Asian-inspired Chinese BBQ pork with shrimp & lobster dumplings. The meat was tender and well-seasoned and the dumplings overflowing.

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By the time our last dish arrived — beef tips in sherry & goat cheese with shitake mushrooms and bruschetta – we were reaching capacity. But it took far too much discipline to stop.

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Revolution served up some of the best food that we’ve had in the Triangle. It was refreshing to see chefs here pushing the envelope and stepping outside the Deep Fried and Bacon Southern Comfort Zone. While the flavors were generally quite unique, we would have liked to see more of that creativity in the presentation.

Could this Revolution compete with Wylie’s WD-50? Not a chance.

But here in Carolina, it’s clear why this spot is causing such a stir – and why the name does indeed live up to its high expectations.

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Taste of Perilla

New York, New York

As fans of Top Chef, we are often left wondering what becomes of each season’s winner. With their much publicized editorial feature in Food & Wine, the appearance in Aspen and cash from Glad, what have Harold, Ilan, Hung, Stephanie and Hosea actually gone on to do?

Last night, we got a chance to see and taste with dinner at Perilla, the West Village restaurant — named after the tangy, mint-related herb that the Japanese call shiso — opened by the inaugural Top Chef, Harold Dieterle, following his win and subsequent celebrity in 2007.

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Inside the skinny New American restaurant, diners sit at zebra wood tables and red leather banquettes lit by Tolomeo chandeliers. Dieterle designed the place as a neighborhood spot but judging by the crowds — and the fact that a Saturday night reservation is recommended three weeks in advance — it’s clear that Perilla continue to benefit from the stardom of its chef.

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We arrived on Jones Street at 8:45 p.m. and were shown to our table near the back. After ordering a reasonably-priced bottle of Cava Brut, we decided to split Dieterle’s signature dish: spicy duck meatballs with mint cavatelli, water spinach & quail egg. It did not disappoint, as the egg added to the richness of the sauce and balanced the spice of the meatballs.

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I’m not one to typically order chicken while out to dinner but Perilla’s roasted speck-wrapped organic chicken — served with salsify, asian pear, walnuts, tatsoi & pomegranate molasses — was delicious. The smoky speck (basically a German prosciutto) went well with the sweet molasses; and the crunch of the bed of walnuts added an interesting texture.

Charlotte’s sauteed trigger fish was also a hit. Served with heirloom tomatoes, quinoa, wood ears, sweet & sour eggplant-basil sauce, the John Dory-like fish was cooked perfectly.

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For dessert, we couldn’t resist s’mores, an amazing reinterpretation of a campfire classic. The chocolate bar was replaced by a dark mousse and topped with toasted marshmallow & crispy graham cracker. As if that wasn’t decadent enough, there was also a scoop of chocolate gelato.

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Our server was friendly, attentive yet non-obtrusive. And we really enjoyed the lively atmosphere which was buzzing but not deafening.

So, what do Top Chefs do in their post-reality television lives?

If they’re anything like Dieterle, they open pretty darn good restaurants.

Mike’s vs Modern: A cannoli rivalry decided

Boston, Massachusetts

When most people think of Bean Town rivalries, they think Yankees-Red Sox. But, believe it or not, there’s a far greater struggle in Boston, one that has polarized residents, stirred hatred and spawned a seemingly interminable debate. I’m talking, of course, about cannolis.

On Hanover Street in Boston’s North End, two historic Italian bakeries — Modern and Mike’s — have battled for decades, claiming that their custard filled puff-pastries are simply The Best. And while just about every newspaper, foodie Web site and blogger has gotten in on the debate, on my trip up here this weekend, it seemed only fair to give them both a try.

First up: Modern, named Best Neighborhood Sweets last year by Boston. This small shop was bustling with activity as locals and tourists alike salivated over the refrigerated cases brimming with delectable pastries. The smell of freshly baked sweets filed the air while the whir of a coffee grinder signaled a fresh batch was brewing.

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Because all of the cannolis are made to order at Modern, the shell was fresh, crunchy and a little flaky. The overflowing filling had a sweet — but not too sweet — taste and a wonderful pudding-like consistency. Consensus: it would be hard to get much better.

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Or would it?

Not more than a hundred yards down the street sat Mike’s. Packed with throngs of tourists wearing bright yellow Cheers ponchos, the welcome was a bit overwhelming. Where did the line end? Was there even a line?

We got distracted and wandered over to the display cases — which showcased the countless cannoli flavors. There was mousse. And honey nut. Choosing could be difficult.

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But to keep it simple (and fair) we got a chocolate chip with a dash of powdered sugar (why not, right?). It wasn’t made to order but it didn’t seem to make much of a difference. The shell was thicker and the filling tasted sweeter than Modern. But still, absolutely delicious.

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So, Modern or Mike’s? For me, a perfect cannoli would have the freshness and personalization of Modern but the shell and filling of Mike’s.

But I’m a native New Yorker. Which means Bostonians could care less about my opinion.

36 Hours in the Research Triangle

Chapel Hill, North Carolina

In planning my frequent travels, I’ve come to rely on a variety of resources.

Most importantly, are people — either those who have visited the places that I’m heading, or better yet, live there. After speaking with them, there are the more traditional targets: TripAdvisor for hotel reviews; Kayak for airfares; Lonely Planet for destinations and sights. One of my most frequently referenced guides though is the New York Times, which I’d argue has the best daily paper travel section in the country.

Every week, the Times puts out a recurring feature, “36 Hours” in which it offers up a weekend-long itinerary of a destination around the globe. You can imagine my excitement then when earlier this summer, it focused it sights right here in the Research Triangle. Would its reporter be able to dig up neighborhood Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill spots and point visitors in the right direction?

Over a 36 hour period, appropriately enough, we set out to investigate.

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What they said: Anyone who has visited the Met or the Getty might scoff at the relatively succinct collection at the North Carolina Museum of Art (2110 Blue Ridge Road, Raleigh; 919-839-6262). But the lack of tour bus crowds means unfettered access to the Old Masters and contemporary heavyweights like Anselm Kiefer. The real treat is the adjacent Museum Park, more than 164 acres of open fields and woodlands punctuated by environmental art like Cloud Chamber, a stone hut that acts as a camera obscura, with a small hole in the roof projecting inverted, otherworldly images of slowly swaying trees on the floor and walls.

What we thought: Although not scheduled to close until September for a scheduled expansion, the museum currently looks like a construction site. The Museum Park had some interesting pieces — although the Carolina Heat didn’t allow us to enjoy it as much as we would have liked. The aforementioned Cloud Chamber was damp and spooky; not nearly as introspective as we had anticipated. Regardless, we would recommend a visit once the museum reopens next spring.

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What they said: There’s no pigeonholing the eclectic wares in this four-story indie minimall collectively known as Father & Son Antiques (107 West Hargett Street, Raleigh; 919-832-3030), and including Southern Swank and 2nd Floor Vintage. The organizing principle, if there is one, might be high design meets kitschy Americana, as the intermingling of vintage disco dresses ($18), Mexican wrestling masks ($20) and Eames aluminum group chairs ($250 to $500) attests.

What we thought: Located in the downtown Raleigh wasteland, this store had a couple of interesting finds mixed in with heaps of junk. For every cool retro floor lamp, there were old typewriters and busted hair dryers. We didn’t go looking for anything in particular — nor did we walk out with anything. Might be worth checking out. But wouldn’t be a big deal if you didn’t.

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What they said: Memorable meals are easy to come by in the Triangle owing to its high concentration of accomplished, produce-fondling chefs like Ashley Christensen. She left one of the area’s top kitchens to open Poole’s Downtown Diner (426 South McDowell Street, Raleigh; 919-832-4477) in a space that began as a 1940s pie shop. Diners sitting in the bright-red booths dig into Christensen’s low-pretense, high-flavor dishes, like a starter of lovably sloppy fried green tomatoes crowned with local pork smoked over cherry wood ($11), and the Royale ($13), an almost spherical hunk of ground-in-house chuck roll seared in duck fat, topped with cheese and perched on a slice of grilled brioche.

What we thought: The location, on a busy street near the Interstate and across from the prison, wasn’t great. But we escaped into this cool, converted space. The focus here is on made-to-order meals; the menu — up on a large chalkboard which we had to walk over to read — changes daily. Our roasted chicken was moist although the portions were a bit meager for the $18 price tag. Poole’s is an informal spot worth grabbing a meal at if you happen to be in Carolina’s capital city and are in search of something a little bit different.

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What they said: For most bars, a popular politician’s visit would be a game-changing boon. But the Raleigh Times Bar (14 East Hargett Street, Raleigh; 919-833-0999) was packed well before Barack Obama showed up the day of the state’s Democratic primary. The owner, Greg Hatem, painstakingly restored the century-old building that once housed its namesake newspaper and decorated the walls with old newspaper clippings, paperboy bags and other artifacts from the defunct daily. Mr. Obama bought a $2 Pabst Blue Ribbon (and left an $18 tip), but anyone not campaigning might choose one of the more than 100 other beers ($1 to $68), including esoteric Belgians and local brews you won’t find elsewhere.

What we thought: This was a hopping spot on our visit — tables were bustling with activity and the crowd spilled over onto the sidewalk. As former journalists, we were suckers for the décor. The Big Boss Seasonal Ales were $6 bucks a piece and well worth it.

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What they said: One of the Triangle’s charms is that its urban trappings are so easy to escape. A 10-mile drive from downtown Durham brings you to Eno River State Park (6101 Cole Mill Road, Durham; 919-383-1686). Its trails pass through swaying pines and follow the river past patches of delicate purple-and-yellow wildflowers and turtles sunning themselves on low branches in the water.

What we thought: Although we do a fair amount of hiking, we never would have heard about this park otherwise. It was largely empty when we arrived to summit Cox Mountain. The walk, about 4 miles round trip, crossed the Eno River on a suspension foot bridge and continued gradually up a hill that climbed 270 feet in elevation. No great views from the top but a great workout.

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What they said: But for a morning meal on the go that’s equally unforgettable, roll up to the drive-through-only Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen (1305 East Franklin Street; 919-933-1324), where the iced tea is tooth-achingly sweet and the main course is fluffy, buttery and filled with salty country ham ($2.02) or crisp fried chicken ($3.40).

What we thought: We’ve driven by this place for the last year so were excited to finally have an excuse to stop there. Our crisp chicken biscuit was certainly tasty (how could it not be?) but we weren’t sure it competed with that offered at Time Out. And for just biscuits, we think the award goes to Weathervane, the café at Southern Season.

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What they said: Anyone not on a hunt for serious Mexican food might drive past Taqueria La Vaquita (2700 Chapel Hill Road, Durham; 919-402-0209), an unassuming freestanding structure with a plastic cow on its roof, just five minutes from Duke’s campus. But if you did, you’d miss tacos ($2.19) made with house-made corn tortillas, uncommonly delicate discs topped with exceptional barbacoa de res (slow-cooked beef) or carnitas (braised-then-fried pork) that you eat at one of the picnic tables out front.

What we thought: Looks can be deceiving at this roadside food stand. But the tacos were absolutely perfect. Authentic Mexican food is difficult to come by in this area. There are just so many lousy places — Los Potrillos, La Hacienda, to name a few. It was so welcome to find this little gem with fresh and spicy flavors.

All in all, I’ve got to give the Times credit. Not all of its recommendations were the greatest. But many were. Which means that I’ll keep checking out “36 Hours” each Sunday morning for inspiration and travel advice. Whether that’s halfway around the globe or right outside my door.

Cooking up bibim bap

Chapel Hill, North Carolina

One of my favorite restaurants in D.C. is Mandu, a small Korean place on 18th Street. Their classic dish is dolsot bibim bap, a delicious combination of rice, stir-fry beef and traditional sauteed vegetables (bean sprouts, spinach, cucumbers, carrots) served in a hot stone bowl. Topped with a fried egg and spicy hot sauce, it’s damn near perfection.

On this summer’s trip through Botswana, my South Korean friend Sook brought along a container of gochujang, a traditional condiment. For several occasions, she broke out the hot sauce and we doused it on the meals cooked at our campsite. It was amazing.

Then, a couple weeks back, an international package arrived at my door. Sook had graciously sent along a box of sauces and rice, along with some pointers on how to make my favorite dish.

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So, with Sook’s guidance, we pieced together our own relatively simple bibim bap recipe.

Ingredients (for two servings):
1 pound skirt steak
1/2 cup rice vinegar
3/4 cup low-sodium soy sauce
4 tablespoons sesame oil
2 garlic cloves
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1/2 tablespoon sugar
2 cups white rice
2 eggs
1 cup spinach
1 cup English cucumber
1/2 cup carrots
1/2 cup bean sprouts

Beef marinade:
Combine 1/2 cup soy sauce, 1/4 cup rice vinegar, 2 tablespoons sesame oil, 1 teaspoon of black pepper and 1 chopped garlic clove

Vegetable marinade:
Combine 1/4 cup soy sauce, 1.5 tablespoons sesame oil, 1/2 tablespoon kosher salt and 1 teaspoon black pepper

Cucumber marinade:
Combine 1/4 cup rice vinegar, 1/2 tablespoon kosher salt, 1/2 tablespoon sugar, 1/2 tablespoon sesame oil, 1 chopped garlic clove

Cooking directions:

(1) Put steak in freezer for about an hour; remove and slice thinly, placing strips into a bowl, covering with marinade and refrigerating overnight
(2) Cook rice per instructions (or have Korean friend mail you authentic instant rice)
(3) Blanche been sprouts for thirty seconds and cool in ice water bath to stop cooking; do the same for spinach and carrots; lightly coat all three (separate bowls) with the vegetable marinade
(4) Thinly cut cucumber and cover in bowl with marinade
(5) Cook beef in large skillet with a tablespoon of oil on medium heat; fry until brown
(6) Fry egg in same skillet, sprinkle with dash of salt

Now it’s time for an important step: assembling the plate.

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On top of rice, place beef, bean sprouts, spinach and carrots; the fried egg and a squirt of sambal oelek, the spicy Korean hot sauce, complete it.

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This could give Mandu a run for its money.

The perfect sandwich at SANDWHICH

Chapel Hill, North Carolina

We had already been meaning to visit SANDWHICH, the much talked and hyped about lunch joint on Franklin Street, before last month’s barrage of media attention.

First, Vanity Fair listed the grass-fed meatloaf with crispy bacon, Vermont cheddar, sliced tomatoes and balsamic glaze on sourdough toast in a feature called “Our Favorite Sandwiches Across the Country.” Next, Huffington Post jumped on the bandwagon, calling the sandwiches “heavenly” and “using only the best ingredients from nearby farms.” And these two swooning reviews were only in the last month — indeed, just about every foodie has left singing its praises.

It was time to check this place out for ourselves.

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By the time we arrived at the small and minimalist space at around 2 p.m., much of the lunch crowd has dispersed for the day. Indeed, besides a small group finishing up their meal, we were the only ones there. SANDWHICH’s menu is an example of the locavore movement taken to the extreme; all of the premium ingredients, from the chicken to the vegetables to the bread, are locally-sourced. Which means they’re amazingly fresh — and not cheap.

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My choice was made with little debate: the meatloaf sandwich ($9.50), which VF said had a “cult following.” Charlotte opted for the house-roasted turkey breast ($9.50), with bibb lettuce, tomatoes, avocado and Harissa mayo on toasted wheat. We both were enticed by the house made potato chips ($2) and freshly squeezed lemonades ($2.50).

All together, lunch for the two of us was just under $30. As we took our seats in the shady courtyard outside we wondered if it would be worth it.

Twenty minutes later, finishing up the meal, we shamed ourselves for ever questioning SANDWHICH — my sandwich was quite possibly the best that I’ve ever had. The meatloaf was perfectly seasoned and piled with melted cheddar, vine-ripened tomatoes and (this being North Carolina) a couple strips of bacon. The chips were thinly sliced with some garlic, kosher salt and minced fresh parsley. A small dish of pickled carrots was quite good, too.

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SANDWHICH is so confident in its sandwiches that it offers a money-back guarantee if they aren’t “fresh” or “delicious” enough.

I’d be surprised though if any diner has ever taken them up on the offer.

Sticky sticky buns at Flour

Boston, Massachusetts

On his Food Network show, Throwdown!, Bobby Flay has hunted down and challenged the country’s best pad thai, chocolate chip cookies and hot dogs — and I’ve tried my best to loyally follow in his footsteps. The noodles at Thai Basil were delicious. Ditto for Levain Bakery’s cookies. A couple years back, we sampled the masterpiece hot dogs at Pink’s, which were overflowing with toppings and caused near immediate heart burn.

After Bobby challenged Joanne Chang’s “sticky sticky buns,” we knew a visit to Flour was necessary on our next visit to Boston. Charlotte had her chance a couple of months back, offering mixed feelings (“Mine are better,” she said bluntly). Still, it couldn’t deter me this morning as we were met with a line snaking out the door of this bakery’s South End location.

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Approaching the register, we scanned the counter for the prized buns — which were nowhere to be found. Throughout the day, Flour varies its delectable, freshly-baked pastries for sale.

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We soon realized that Joanne had clearly not been preparing for our visit; indeed, the next round of buns wouldn’t be ready until 12:30 p.m. Glancing at the clock which had just struck 10 a.m., we cut our loses and pulled an audible.

The sandwich board announced the bakery’s daily special: a toasted brioche sandwich with sliced banana and homemade Nutella. It would prove a worthy substitute.

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Freshly baked bread overflowing with crunchy hazlenuts, gooey Nutella and chewy bananas. Washed down with an iced coffee, it was hard to ask for much more.

Plus, Charlotte’s sticky buns are better.

Watch out, Bobby.

Sundaes at S & T Soda Shoppe

Chapel Hill, North Carolina

My culinary adventure to taste the best of the best continues. I’ve been wanting to visit S & T Soda Shoppe since reading about it last year — located in Pittsboro, a quaint town about 20 minutes from here, S & T is said to have the area’s best ice cream sundaes.

When my good buddy Mike drove up from Charlotte today, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to give the place a shot. S & T is housed in an old pharmacy that dates back to the early 20th century. The joint reopened about 15 years ago yet manages to maintain an authentic feeling of 1950s Americana. There’s an antique jukebox in the front, old classic memorabilia lines the walls and its wood tables and booths have been rescued from a legit soda fountain.

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We were seated quickly and only a couple of minutes later, were served up heaping sundaes. There are over 30 homemade flavors to choose from — birthday cake and peanut butter cup sounded good to me — and it came topped with whipped cream, hot chocolate syrup, rainbow sprinkles and a cherry. The whole shebang.

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Mike went with the birthday cake and moose track, which we learned is essentially vanilla ice cream with peanut butter cups and fudge. It was so good that he finished the whole dang thing!

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And at just about $4 a pop, these sundaes weren’t just delicious — they were a steal.

I’ve got a feeling I’ll be back.

A Rochester delicacy: “Garbage Plates”

Rochester, New York

No trip to the Rock is complete without an obligatory stop for a “garbage plate” at Nick Tahou Hots, a landmark restaurant famous for its extreme American cuisine. The earliest version of this dish dates back to 1918, when it was called “Hots and Potatoes.” This evolved to “Hots and Po-tots” and eventually to the “Garbage Plate.” So, why “garbage plate”?

Well, all it takes is one look.

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The dish starts with a base of home fries. Simple enough. From that, macaroni salad, baked beans, two cheeseburgers, onions, mustard, chili and hot sauce are piled on top. Apparently, years ago, customers at Nick’s started asking for “one of those plates with all the garbage on it.” And thus, the garbage plate was born.

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As unappetizing as it looks, the garbage plates are surprisingly delicious. We expected to be grossed out — but the burgers were cooked well and single forkfuls of meat, onion, chili and potato just the right mix. “This is actually really good,” Alex said. Still, the heaping portions were obscene and we barely put a dent in the three pound plate of food.

“Just one? For the twoaya?” the guy at the counter had asked incredulously when we placed our order. Yes, just one, we shamefully replied.

Give us a break here.

The barbecue of upstate New York

Rochester, New York

Much debate has been made over the barbecue of Eastern and Western Carolina.

But what of the question of North versus South?

I’m visiting my brother in upstate New York this weekend and as it so turns out, they take barbecue pretty serious up here too. Last night, we had dinner at Dinosaur Bar B Que, a roadhouse in the heart of downtown Rochester that is said to be the best. It sits in the former Lehigh Valley Train Station, overlooking the Genesee River. We called ahead to put our name on the list — a smart move, judging by the 90 minute wait and line out the door upon our arrival.

Our tattooed waitress came over and yelled some specials. Not that it mattered. We were focused and already had our minds set. First up, a full rack of ribs. They are marinated with an “action spice” dry rub and then slowly pit smoked for 24-hours. Before serving, the rack is lightly slathered with Dinosaur’s original sauce.

The ribs were huge, with hunks of meat literally falling off of the bone, and had great flavor. And they weren’t too saucy, so fingers were kept relatively clean. For our two sides, we opted for the baked beans and mac & cheese, both of which were hearty and delicious.

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Next, we dug into a Texas brisket plate, which is pit smoked for 14-hours and served with house-cured pickled jalapeños. The inner meat was tender and well-seasoned while the outside had a great crisp texture to it. It was sliced thinly and served with a tangy sauce. Our sides were quintessential barbecue fare: fries, slaw and a hunk of sweet cornbread, balancing the spice.

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It’s somewhat unexpected but upstate New York is certainly onto something with its ‘cue. It might not be Carolina but it’s pretty darn close.